For today’s COVID-19 Report, we spoke with several school district police chiefs about the status of plans for reopening schools in coming weeks, and how school officers’ work has changed because of COVID-19.


Key Takeaways

-- If it can be done safely, school districts want to offer some in-person instruction, but plans are in flux. Reopening plans are changing based on local COVID-19 levels and decisions by state and local officials. School police are preparing for a complete range of possibilities, from 100% virtual classes to 100% in-person classes. Many have phased plans, to test whether in-person classes can be conducted on a limited scale before attempting larger classes.

-- School police officers are taking on a variety of tasks while classes are virtual. The pandemic has changed the role of school police. Officers are taking on new COVID-related duties, and in some cases are de-emphasizing enforcement actions.

-- Outfitting officers with PPE and other protections was an early priority for agencies. This has better prepared them for when classes do resume.

-- Connecting with students is challenging when they aren’t attending classes in person. School police are getting creative with social media and online instruction.


Chief Frank Kitzerow, Palm Beach County, FL School District Police Department:

We’re Starting with All-Online Classes, But Hope to Gradually Bring Students Back

We have 187 schools, 200,000 students, and 23,000 employees spread out over 2,300 square miles.

For months we’ve been working through a plan for how to bring students, faculty, and staff back, and we just had that plan approved.

We’re coming back in four phases. Phase One is going to be virtual. Our original start date was August 10, and that has been moved back to August 31. We hope we’ll have virtual classes only for a short period of time. We’re watching the COVID-19 numbers, and South Florida is getting hit worse now than any other part of the state.

We’re hoping that after 2 to 3 weeks in Phase One, we’ll be ready to move into Phase Two, when we actually start bringing people onto campuses. We’ll bring in all those who are going into a new school environment for the first time, so that means pre-K, kindergarten, first grade, sixth graders starting middle school, and ninth graders starting high school.

Phase Three will add one grade in each school, so second graders, seventh graders, and tenth graders will return to school campuses. Phase Four will bring in all the other students.

We’ll be assessing each phase on a two-week interval, and the COVID-19 levels will determine when we move into the next phase.

By not bringing everyone back at the same time, we have an opportunity to see the implications of having students, faculty, and staff on campus. That includes bus transportation, food services, and classrooms. It gives us an opportunity to make adjustments and puts us in a better position if we have to pivot back to a virtual environment.

Chuck Wexler: Is there any discussion about taking police out of schools in Florida or Palm Beach County?

Chief Kitzerow: No, there isn’t any talk of that. The conversation here is more about police reforms. We have Senate Bills 7026 and 7030 that require, among other things, that a police officer be on every campus during school hours. And we’ve expanded that to after-school events. So we’re not hearing talk about removing police from schools, because state law requires us to have people on the campus.

Wexler: What protection will officers have?

Chief Kitzerow:  They will be issued full PPE gear, including surgical masks and N95 masks. We have been in special operation mode since March 3, so they are pretty comfortable working in this environment now. And we’ve had to navigate things like closing schools. So we feel pretty good about our policies and procedures right now. We’ve had a few people test positive, and we’ve quickly worked with them to get them the assistance they need.

Wexler:  Will officers be expected to enforce social distancing as you bring people back on campus?

Chief Kitzerow:  We will not be enforcing face mask rules or anything like that. That is more for administrative staff, risk management, and code compliance people. With relationships the way they are right now, we think it probably isn’t a good idea to have police enforcing those things.

Wexler:  Have you ever experienced a time like this in policing?

Chief Kitzerow:  No, I’ve never seen a time like this. I’m in my 18th year as a police chief, most of which has been municipal experience. We’ve had challenging times, but I’ve never seen a time where we’re in such disarray and we can’t even get elected officials, in many cases, to rally around us.  I’m confident that we’re going to navigate our way through it, but it’ll be one of the most challenging things we do in our lifetime.


Chief Ralph Godbee, Detroit Public Schools Community District Police Department:

We Are Preparing for a Parents’ Option of Online or In-Person Instruction

We’re prepared to start our school year at the normal time, which is the Tuesday after Labor Day, and there are dual offerings. Parents are being given the option of online instruction or face-to-face instruction.

Our police department has been working the entire time. We move from protecting people to protecting assets. We provided PPE for our employees, including N95 masks and hand sanitizer. We increased the sanitation of the inside of vehicles. We moved to one-person cars to limit exposure between partners. So we’ve stabilized spread of the virus within our police department. Unfortunately, in our initial encounter with COVID we had 15-20 positive tests out of 200 employees, and we lost one employee to the virus.

That hurt the department psychologically, because we didn’t know much about the disease and how it spread. I think as we have learned more about how to reduce the spread, that has helped the psyche of our officers.

But a big challenge going forward is that we don’t know if we’re going to be allowed to have face-to-face instruction. We’re preparing for both, but it’s going to be the governor’s call.

Our superintendent’s preference is to have both options for two reasons. First, we understand that some parents won’t be comfortable sending their child into a face-to-face environment. And second, some teachers are in vulnerable populations and won’t be comfortable being in those environments either.

We are in phase four of the state reopening plan, and phase five will have all employees and students in the schools. So we’re moving toward that, but we’re prepared if there’s a step backward, to move completely online.

The digital divide, meaning students’ access to the internet and devices, was a big issue in Detroit. Thanks to a public/private partnership, all 52,000 of our students will be issued laptops with a hotspot or some form of internet access at no charge to them.

Detroit is the largest school district in the state and the only school district with its own police department. For those on the “defund police” bandwagon, our department has been a target. However, we have de-emphasized the enforcement aspect of our police department, using a four-tier approach of prevention, intervention, reintegration into the classroom, and enforcement as a last tool. We’re more focused on securing the perimeter and preventing active shooter situations.

Wexler:  Does the pandemic change the role of your officers in the schools?

Chief Godbee: To a certain extent, in prioritizing what we enforce. I think every police officer in the country has reevaluated how they engage people physically, and whether engagements are necessary in the performance of their duties. So that has been a game-changer.

Another aspect is officer safety, given the issues that precipitated after George Floyd’s death. Officers have been somewhat reticent to engage at the same level that they engaged before. I think any chief would agree that that is the feeling on the ground.

Wexler: Have you ever seen a time like this in your career in policing?

Chief Godbee:  No, I haven’t. This is my 33rd year in policing, and I think this is the most tense time. The only thing I can tie it to is hearing about the 1967 civil unrest in Detroit from my mother. But this is unquestionably a different time in policing. We’re fortunate in Detroit that we have built some “community capital,” but I think every department across the country is feeling this.  


Chief Ashley Gonzalez, Austin, TX Independent School District Police Department:

Our Reopening Plan Keeps Changing, and Is Still Up in the Air

This is changing day by day. We closed our campuses back in March and really have not had a break since, trying to adapt and reinvent ourselves. It’s constantly changing as we come up with scenarios and try to prepare for the next phase. I was part of a reopening task force that was trying to tackle all those issues. Just when you think you have a handle on things, you get hit with new issues.

Our plan, which is changing again, was to open on August 18. We were going to open with a hybrid model, allowing 25% of the students to come in. But on July 14, the health director for the Austin region issued an order that schools shall not reopen for face-to-face instruction until September 7. Our plan was to do distance learning for the first weeks, then open up to a percentage of students after September 7.

To complicate things more, our funding is tied to attendance. The Texas attorney general issued an opinion stating that the health director cannot close schools as a precautionary measure. The Texas Education Agency redefined their expectations of us and said that closed schools have to offer on-campus learning for individuals who choose it or do not have access to technology. So we are up in the air.

We have had some officers come down with the virus. Luckily, all my officers have seen a full recovery. But quarantining officers has an impact.

We jumped on this early, so we were able to obtain PPE kits for all our officers, and they have whatever they need. Each officer was issued a thermometer so they can monitor themselves.

Initially I had to suspend the FTO program. As I watched this develop, I reimplemented it with some new safety guidelines, because we’ve continued to train new officers.

Wexler:  Is it hard for officers to engage with students while wearing masks?

Chief Gonzalez:  It is very challenging. Community policing at the school level is what we do. You miss some of that when you have to keep distance or some students are staying home.

We’ve been working on ways we can stay engaged with students, either through social media or live  video feeds. We’re trying to offer some of the programming we normally would during the school year, like instruction about dating violence, and offer it online. Obviously COVID is going to stay with us for a while.


The PERF Daily COVID-19 Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting PERF’s COVID-19 work.